FORT WAYNE – If any of the luster has worn off the Komets three straight championships in the IHL, it can be polished with a victory in the upcoming best-of-five Turner Conference semifinals series against the Rapid City Rush.
The series pits the reigning champion of the CHL against Fort Wayne, a team that hopes to prove the IHL may have been smaller, and the Komets start this season slow, but they are among the elite of AA hockey.
I definitely use it as motivation for myself and so does the team, Komets captain Colin Chaulk said. Hey, look at the way this season has gone. We were defending IHL champions and were (in last place until February). Theres still a lot to prove here for this team and individually. Nobody has had a great year, statistically or teamwise. If we get this series, it will silence some people.
Of course, then theyll say, Theres still two rounds to go, and they havent proved anything yet.
The Komets were one of four IHL teams to merge with the CHL last summer, and theyre the only one still playing. After losing 16 of their first 21 games, they finished the regular season 31-27-8 and with the sixth seed in the Turner Conference.
In the first round, they swept third-seeded Bloomington, another former IHL team, setting up a series with an unfamiliar opponent, the Rush. The top-seeded Rush went 40-22-4, including an opening-night 4-0 drubbing of the Komets at Memorial Coliseum and a 3-1 victory March 12 in South Dakota, where the teams meet tonight.
They are the defending champions and are going to be prepared for us, Chaulk said. Theyre going to be hitting guys and stomping on pucks – we assume so, anyways – so weve got to be ready.
The Komets underestimated the speed in the CHL and overestimated their own talent at the start, but adding players like Chaulk, Tab Lardner, Danny Lapointe, Mike Ratchuk and Matt Krug has transformed them. They point to the last game against Rapid City – they outshot the Rush 37-26 – as reason for confidence.
We showed we had progressed throughout the season, goaltender Kevin Reiter said. I dont know if this is the Battle of the Champions; theres bragging rights for every series. But were not worried about what other people say or think. It was bad enough reading the newspapers the first few months of the season.
For us, to get through them would be a huge testament to where we came from the beginning of the season, the leaps and strides we made from that debacle at the start.
The Komets are similar in composition to the Rush, which has high-scoring forwards Les Reaney, Konrad Reeder, Ryan Menei, Derek LeBlanc and Scott Wray, playmaking defensemen Vladimir Hartinger and Dave Grimson, and a goaltending combination of Danny Battochio and Tim Boron.
Statistically, the teams are close to identical, though the Rush scores a little more (3.18 goals per game to 2.83) and the Komets special teams are more consistent.
And both have proved they know how to win in the postseason.
Its going to be a good series, Chaulk said. Were evenly matched teams, and its going to come down to those small little battles. Who wants to put themselves in those vulnerable situations and take a hit to make a play? If were willing to do that, like we did in the first round, were going to be successful.
The Komets, who were led in scoring during the first round by third-line winger Mathieu Curadeau (four goals, eight points), dont think even the Rush can match their depth.
The biggest thing is we have bought into the team identity, Ratchuk said. Everybody is doing the same thing, and it will be a lot different this time when we go out there.